Matthias Stork is more likely to be found hunched over a research desk at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library than in the darker recesses of a multiplex cinema playing the latest Hollywood visual effects laden action flick. He is, after all, a graduate student in the Department of Film and Television at UCLA. He has an M.A. in Education from Goethe University, Frankfurt, in his native Germany. His current focus is on German expressionist films of the 1920s.
In the last decade of the silent era the Hollywood studios siphoned off many of the finest German filmmakers; the stream became a flood with the rise of National Socialism in 1933. It included director Fritz Lang and the great cinematographer Karl Freund, who had emigrated to the US in 1929. Several years earlier, German émigré F.W. Murnau’s first American film, Sunrise, was one of the high water marks of this great stream. But it is the lesser-known director, Paul Leni, who is the object of Stork’s current research. Leni had made the macabre Waxworks in 1924 Weimar Germany. In Hollywood, he directed only four films before an early death at age 44 in September of 1929. He seems a worthy figure for exegesis for a young German film scholar.
But here is the surprise. Stork’s real scholarly passion is the American action film, a genre that at first glance seems ill tailored for an academic suit. But one of the endearing qualities of German scholarship in science as well as in the arts is its ability to imprint an academic perspective on pop culture as easily as on philosophical ontology.
Stephen Pizzello and Martha Winterhalter emailed me the link to a two-part video essay they had found called “Chaos Cinema.” They suggested it would make a good blog essay. Its creator, Matthias Stork, was not someone whom I knew, nor (despite having his own blog) whom I was able to track down easily. Finally, William McDonald, Professor of Film, Television and Digital Media at UCLA, provided me with Stork’s email. The young scholar met me a few days later on a bench outside the Herrick Library. The juxtaposition of his precise, even scholarly, English—as he spoke about the tropes of “action cinema” with its signature cataclysmic car chases and violent shootouts with exploding body parts—and the spatial and psychic dislocation of the films themselves, was intriguing. Even better, it turns out we both share an abiding love of the seminal films of the French New Wave.
Matthias Stork’s thesis, if you can call it that, is simple. Even in the world of fast paced action cinema, there has been until recently an acceptance by most filmmakers of many of the traditional rules of spatial continuity, ones that have been guidelines for viewers since Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery of 1903. Rather than my explaining this further, let’s look at Stork’s two-part video essay:
There’s a lot going on here and whether you agree with all, most, or few of the ideas that Stork catalogs in these two densely narrated essays, it delineates not only a trend in studio action films but, as he says, a new “default” technique. As a cinematographer, I have never embraced the wilder tics and spasms of action films, even before the emergence of chaos cinema. I have been drawn to the slow build-up of character and narrative that involves the viewer, engaging him in a human connection to even the “baddest” of the bad guys. Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone were masters at this slow build, slow burn, screwed down aesthetic. Fast paced action was delayed to a point of absolute tension crying for release. When it happens, it is not only shocking, but (in the true Greek sense) cathartic. It is the aesthetic that Wolfgang Petersen and I sought in the Clint Eastwood/John Malkovich starring In the Line of Fire, a film that relies on cat and mouse tension more than firepower. A film that is its antecedent in my own action hierarchy (and one that embraced the tropes of the still fresh French New Wave in Hollywood) is the Lee Marvin film from 1967, Point Blank, directed by John Boorman and photographed by the great Phil Lathrop.
There is a lot of violence in Point Blank, almost all of it in the movie’s trailer, but the hard-edged and unrelenting character of Walker (Lee Marvin) is revealed piece by piece as the film unfolds, much as it does in the more unified flashback at the center of Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player.
Stork’s narration in his video essay is well considered and crafted. Its theses and conclusions are strongly voiced. Without taking up a contrarian point of view, I asked him about some of the aesthetic underpinnings for his thoughts about this current “default” technique and where the intersection of camera technology with aesthetic style might be headed. Here are the questions and his answers (in italics).
You say that there is a kind of sea change that took place in commercial movies around a decade ago, when “classical cinema” style, in action films at least, was displaced by “chaos cinema.” When did you personally begin to be aware of this as a significant change in image acquisition and not just as a personal directorial or cinematographic choice?
In the video essay, I rather arbitrarily locate the change in action aesthetics within the post-millennial period of cinema. I still argue that the new millennium marks a paradigm shift in the aesthetic representation of action, from a more classically orientated (or even the Bordwellian conception of intensified continuity) approach to a chaotic one. But I need to clarify that this watershed is not abrupt. It rather evolved gradually, from the 1960s onward. Chaos Cinema has not displaced classical continuity, however. It has ascended to a mainstream filmmaking mode. But it may not be the dominant mode — yet.
I wonder if there is a chicken/ egg effect here. CGI stunts and over-the-top-action sequences seem to parallel the increasing real look of video games. Is there a symbiosis between gaming style, especially first person ones and more and more elaborate movie action sequences?
Several commentators have drawn the parallel from video games to action films. In this context, I find Bolster and Grusin’s concept of remediation quite instructive. Video games, primarily ego-shooters, remediate the point-of-view aesthetic of cinema. Yet, the games equally extend the cinematic perspective. In ego-shooters, the subjectivity of perspective is normative. In cinema, it is selective. As several experiments have demonstrated, a total subjective point of view is unsustainable in cinema [e.g. Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake, photographed by Paul Vogel]. Filmmakers who seek to emulate video game aesthetics (i.e. remediate them) have to rely on other techniques, such as hyperkinetic editing, wild, soaring camera movements and image manipulations (for those interested in this topic, I recommend Steven Shaviro’s excellent book Post-Cinematic Affect). I definitely see a symbiotic relationship between video games and action films. But films do not fully adopt (or replicate) video game aesthetics. The dynamics are more complex.
Apparently, the studios have decided that the conceits of chaos cinema are a preferred technique for most large-scale action movies. Its introduction into the James Bond series in Quantum of Solace sure makes it seem so. If you use Bond as an action hero template, what effect does this have on the human dimension of his character or of traditional heroes?
The human complexity of Bond’s character was superbly explored in Casino Royale. I would not necessarily attribute the lack of character focus in Quantum of Solace to the implementation of chaos technique. It may be a screenplay issue. However, the aesthetic configuration of Quantum illustrates the growing marketability of chaos cinema as an action style for mass entertainment. Casino Royale was classically composed (classical in the sense that it was fast, hyperkinetic, but still crystal clear, “intensified,” as David Bordwell would say). Quantum deviated from this aesthetic and opted for the Bourne approach, hectic, overwrought, over-indulgent. The opening sequence is particularly representative of this shift. We see fragments of a car chase. We see fragments of Bond. The traditional iconography of the series is subverted for the sake of sensory overload. The pleasures that the series provides in the opening sequence—Bond’s iconic entrance, a slow build-up that culminates in an action extravaganza, sharp musical interludes—are sacrificed for overstimulation.
The Transformers series and many super-hero movies seem to believe there is little obligation to genuflect to credible characterization. Is the notion of characters of empathy outmoded? Do spectacle and pure kinetic space neutralize the audience’s traditional regard for narrative and character? Or, as you say at one point, does the displacement of credible time and space simply “bludgeon you until you give up?
Chaos cinema dispenses with traditional character development and narrative focus. Films are not used to tell engaging stories. They are designed to provide thrills. In this regard, chaos cinema marks a return to what Tom Gunning referred to as the cinema of attractions, a purely formal conception of cinema. There are still numerous films that value the storytelling process. Many of them are superhero films. But films such as Transformers certainly demonstrate that characterization has become obsolete. It is not the main focus anymore, at least with regard to the typical mainstream summer action movie.
Like every stylistic trend that filmmakers have rushed to adopt, the most hip style can seem a few years later to be seen as a film’s own “time capsule.” You only have to think of the overuse of the zoom in the 60s and early 70s, the MTV video mindlessly swooping crane shots of a rock band in 90s performances, the bravura steadicam shot that stands out from a film’s flow like a boil, or the shaky-cam as a signifier for documentary realism. Is chaos cinema style also a time capsule?
Chaos cinema constitutes an amalgamation of several stylistic techniques with an underlying aesthetic agenda, namely to overpower the audience. In this regard, it is not a new phenomenon, rather a reaffirmation of the cinema’s original purpose, to wow, enchant and entertain. To classify chaos cinema, as a time capsule would grant it more significance in the historical discourse than it may, at this point, deserve. To me, it is much more productive and fruitful to identify the salient stylistic traits of chaos cinema and explore how they are utilized, how they (d)evolve and how they affect audiences.
You said that you are a passionate fan of action films. Are these mainly ones you define as in the classical mode? Can you list a few of the best examples of classical action?
Again, I need to emphasize that the term ‘classical’ comprises both classical decoupage and its intensified, Bordwellian mode. Spatio-temporal continuity is maintained. Transgressions (i.e. self-conscious displays of technique that subvert this unity) are used pointedly, for a specific effect. I can list a few of my favorite films and I am reluctant to label them as the ‘best’ examples. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, John Mc Tiernan’s Die Hard, John Woo’s The Killer, William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A., James Cameron’s Aliens. There are many more, of course, but I tend to revisit these films quite a lot. And I am aware that most of them do not conform to rigid genre definitions. But they all feature extensive action sequences.
The narration of your two part video essay is filled with expressions, almost of a Godardian morality of cinema, when you describe the disruption of space in chaos films. You speak of a “perversion of classical technique,” a “shotgun aesthetic,” “sensory overload,” “excess,” “exaggeration.” How do your peers react to such a clearly voiced critical perspective ?
I completely agree that the rhetoric of the video essay assumes a moral authority, which has the potential to seem patronizing and arrogant. Many commentators have rightfully described the piece as overly romantic. Personally, I still hold that the polemical tone of the essay is a necessary component of the overarching argument. I read a few responses by scholars who reviewed the essay unfavorably. I do not object to their criticisms but I feel compelled to point out that the video essay was conceived as a piece of film criticism, not necessarily film scholarship. I knew that the discourse on the subject matter was passionate and divisive. I had a clear position. And I deemed it necessary to articulate it unequivocally, and provocatively. I am pleased with the reactions the essay elicited from both professionals and cinephiles. My goal was not to dismiss chaos cinema. It was to reinvigorate the discourse. In this regard, the rhetorical samples you selected from the essay were designed to provoke a response.
My ears perked right up when you mentioned the austere Robert Bresson during the clip of a car chase from Quantum of Solace. But your observation about Bresson’s conviction that sound may be equal to image in cinema, sometimes even pre-eminent, was unexpected in that context. Can you explain a bit more about the soundtrack as a device that can bring order to disorderly images?
The implementation of Robert Bresson’s argument about sound may have been incongruous for several viewers. But Bresson’s sharp-minded, pithy comments on the cinema are certainly applicable to modern contexts. Sound indeed functions as a constant that provides stability and order in chaotically edited action sequences. It fills in the gaps, helps us construct the diegetic space (I recommend Mark Kerins’ book Beyond Dolby for a more detailed articulation of this idea). But only to a certain extent. As I argue in the essay, in the ideal action sequence the relationship between sound and image is communicative, not competitive.
You begin the video essay by saying that in the first century of cinema the default style of commercial movies was “classical”: meticulous, patient, every camera composition and move having a meaning (more Godard). Do you think that the digital video aesthetic of lightweight cameras with flip screens, auto-focus, auto-exposure imagery reflects or is partly the reason for chaos cinema?
It is no mystery that the digitization of film and the concurrent proliferation (and institutionalization) of digital technology in filmmaking have affected the aesthetics of cinema. Ambrose Heron at FilmDetail wrote a very interesting piece about the role of the Avid in Chaos Cinema
All in all, I am fairly certain that the ability to edit film on a digital platform accommodates certain creative impulses. The same applies to digital camera technology. But style is not by default a result of technological restraints or potentialities. It involves choice. And, in this case, the choice may have moral, economic and industrial dimensions.
Immersive experience (a term possibly from first person video gaming) seems to be a kind of new gold standard for big budget action films. With it comes a diminishing sense of narrative and characterization. Do you think this rupture is inherent in the chaos style or is that style only in an infant stage as were the early Lumiere films, that some richer new emotionally engaged style is yet possible?
The essential characteristics of chaos cinema, which I attempted to outline in the video essay, are not inherently flawed. They are not the reason for a lack of characterization and narrative focus. In fact, chaos style can be utilized quite effectively. I argued that Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker constitutes a superb example of chaos cinema, precisely because its agenda is to link the audience’s immersive experience to the perspective of the central character. The predominant iteration of chaos cinema aims for thrills, the transient pleasure of spectacle. But it certainly holds the potential to complement filmic scenarios that tell gripping, emotionally involving stories.
What has been lost, if anything, by such a headlong embrace of chaos cinema style? Is it possible to retrieve and rehabilitate a classical style in today’s marketplace?
I’d like to first reverse your question. What has been gained? I neglected this question in my video essay but I still find it worthy of further consideration. Chaos cinema reaffirmed the medium’s potential for spectacle, to draw crowds, to entertain mass audiences. And this achievement is certainly commendable, specifically with regarding to diminishing box-office numbers. Furthermore, cinematic technique takes center stage in the critical discourse. As narrative is disregarded, style becomes a crucial factor in the assessment of films. And as a formalist, I favor this type of discussion. However, as several journalistic pieces have demonstrated (I am particularly referring to the excellent NY Times editorial about slow cinema, co-authored by A.O. Scott and Manola Darghis), the prevalence of the chaos cinema mentality marginalizes different types of cinema (art-house, slow-burning dramas etc.) In this respect, the discourse on chaos cinema should take account of the films’ reception, how audiences engage with them. The classical style still has currency. Several contemporary blockbusters have shown that audiences are receptive to it, as long as they feature copious amounts of action.
Homer Simpson may have not only the most succinct but truest explanation of why we find ourselves increasingly fixed in a chaos aesthetic, one that has begun to affect even quiet, more static dialogue scenes with rapid fire cutting and truncated reaction shots. Homer is clear in saying that what the audience wants are “seats with beverage holders, but mainly action.” Older multiplex theaters are being re-modeled and newer ones being built, to offer the audience more of the amenities of home viewing, including seat-side food and beverage service just like a sports venue. Such domestic comforts and mobility inside a darkened theater almost seem to encourage distraction. A concomitant effect is shorter attention spans with more action. Less dialogue fuels the experience as popcorn fuels the viewer’s stomach. Add to that lots of chatter and mobile phone calls and texting—and you have the requisite environment. Suddenly, sadly, the home theater may seem the better venue for close viewing, that is, if we can avoid the peripheral distractions that continue to erode our attention span.
Juxtaposed to this ethos of chaos cinema is the continuing specter of classical cinema, a cinema of character, narrative, and nuanced, even complex performances. Visually, it is a cinema where the camera is engaged in an intricate interplay with all the other elements of the film. The purest, most reductive manifestation of this cinematographic style is the long camera take, even of entire scenes photographed in a single shot. Classical cinema may embody a definition with many modifiers, but the principal clause therein is this uncut,often constantly moving, camera shot. Part two of this essay will look at a number of these as countervailing to the hundreds of cuts we have seen in the excerpts of films in Matthias Stork’s two part video essay.
As an appetizer for Part Two of this essay, here is the opening of the 1931 Rouben Mamoulian directed Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde. Keep in mind that the freely moving camera of the late silent era had been imprisoned in the “iceboxes” of the early sound days.
Not only have Mamoulian and cinematographer Karl Struss liberated it in this sequence but the point of view is of a video game-like “ego shooter” first person. There are several cuts, a few of them hidden, but the dominant aesthetic is that of continuous, time, visually uninterrupted: of Jekyll playing his organ, checking himself in a clever, non-mirror mirror shot, exiting his home, riding in a carriage, and finally entering into his university lecture hall. It is still a fascinating sequence today, even in a world of steadicam and remote camera crane systems. The clip begins at 1:10 after the credits.
Next up (in two weeks) is a closer look at some films, famous and more obscure, that engage the classical style with scenes in a single camera shot.